BISSAU, March 2 – Guinea Bissau soldiers gunned down veteran president Joao Bernardo Vieira as he fled his home early Monday following turmoil in which the army chief was blown up and killed, a military spokesman said.
The West African nation’s army blamed Vieira, 69, for the death of their leader, General Tagme Na Waie, in a bomb attack on Sunday, military spokesman, Zamora Induta, told AFP.
Vieira, one of the leaders of Guinea-Bissau’s fight against Portuguese rule, led the impoverished country from 1980 to 1999 and then became president again in 2005 until his death. Relations with the army had been tense for months.
"President Vieira was killed by the army as he tried to flee his house which was being attacked by a group of soldiers close to the head of the chief of staff, Tagme Na Waie, early this morning," the spokesman said.
Vieira was "taken down by bullets fired by these soldiers," he said.
Induta added that the president was "one of the main people responsible for the death of Tagme" who was killed in a bomb attack on the military headquarters in Bissau on Sunday night.
The country is one of the poorest in Africa, and is considered a key transit point for South American cocaine heading to Europe, but the army spokesman said the killing of the president presented an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.
"The country will start up now. This man had blocked any momentum in this small country," Induta said.
The assassination comes after weeks of mounting rivalry between the president and the military leadership, with the country’s navy chief accused of attempting to overthrow the government last year.
Vieira’s supporters and the army fought in the capital, Bissau, on Sunday and rocket explosions and automatic weapon fire could be heard in the capital early Monday.
Guinea-Bissau has suffered repeated political unrest and coups since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974.
In January, the chief of staff ordered the disarming of militiamen in the presidential guard after claiming soldiers had tried to kill him. About 100 assault rifles and four RPG rocket launchers were subsequently recovered from the militiamen.
And shortly after parliamentary elections in November, a mystery attack by a group of soldiers on the office of the president — possibly a mutiny or a coup bid — left two people dead.
The bomb attack which killed Tagme came as the general was in his office.
One of the general’s bodyguards said the bomb was placed under the stairway leading to Tagme’s office and the blast destroyed a large part of the main headquarters building, where his office was located.
Five other people were wounded in the blast.
The country’s weak state institutions have been undermined in recent years by its emerging status as a key transit point for South American cocaine en route to Europe.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a thinktank, said some soldiers had become involved in drugs smuggling and were opposed "to a reform that could force them into retirement and cut them off from lucrative drugs trafficking income".
Vieira took power in a bloodless coup in 1980 and ruled until 1999 with support from the army and hos African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).
He went into exile following a civil war, before returning in 2004 and being re-elected a year later.
The legislative elections on November 16 were won comfortably by Vieira’s party but they were denounced as rigged by the opposition.